By now, nobody can claim ignorance about the horrifying atrocities unfolding in the Central African Republic. What's curious is why – as the world this week marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda – so many countries seem reluctant to do anything to stop it.
Experts argue about whether the sectarian killings in CAR are best described as genocide (some use the term "ethno-religious cleansing"), crimes against humanity or war crimes. It's an academic and legal argument; more important are the basic human facts. On that score, the echoes of Rwanda are striking. Until roughly a year ago, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace. Today, civilian mobs and machete-wielding militias are ripping the country apart. Atrocities have been committed by both sides, but at the moment, the minority Muslim population is being violently targeted, with entire communities being forced to flee to surrounding countries. And like Rwanda, there were multiple warnings that, without intervention, CAR would descend into civil war.
What began as a political conflict has morphed into a sectarian one that's claimed more than 140,000 civilian lives. Another 600,000 people have been internally displaced. The UN estimates that more than 2.5 million people – half of the country – are in need of urgent help. A force of 2,000 French troops and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers have been unable to put an end to the carnage, and without more robust international intervention, the UN warns the situation in CAR will spiral further out of control.
So far, Canada's contribution has been minimal. Last year, Ottawa contributed about $7-million in humanitarian assistance. This year, it has pledged $5-million to the United Nations' appeal. The money has gone toward clean water, food and basic health care for those affected by the crisis. Considering the scale of the disaster, and Canada's capacity and ties to this poor francophone nation, that's simply not enough.
Given the brutal lessons of Rwanda, Ottawa should acutely understand the consequences of inaction. Retired general and Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire has called for Canada to join a proposed UN peace-keeping mission of 12,000 soldiers. This country can do that by contributing logistical support, helicopters, communications and strategic airlift to assist the peacekeepers already there.
"How many more children have to be decapitated, how many more women and girls will be raped, how many more acts of cannibalism must there be, before we really sit up and pay attention?" Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said to reporters after a recent trip to the country. Twenty years after Rwanda, it's discouraging that she even has to ask such a question.